Judy Watson sat cross-legged on a bed of pine needles, two large cougars slowly edging closer to her side.
"Little Girl," she cooed. "Little Girl! Come here!"
The cougar wasn't interested. She stalked to the edge of her cage, pacing for food. Her sister, Big Sister, sauntered to Watson's side, nuzzling her reddish fur into Watson's face.
It was a cool and windy Wednesday afternoon at the Survival Outreach Sanctuary, the animal asylum Watson founded a decade ago on 10 acres of wilderness outside Shady Hills. Here she feeds and fawns over a dozen exotic cats, four wolfdogs, two pigs, a lemur, a tortoise and a slew of housecats and stray dogs.
The cougars often take center stage. On Saturday, the day they turn 20, Watson will for the first time open the sanctuary's gate to the public. She has already planned their birthday party.
Cougars in the wild can live into their teens. In captivity they often live much longer, though rarely older than 20. In many ways, the cougars' time is up.
Their ancestors, Watson said, were Florida panthers plucked from the Everglades for Lester Piper's roadside zoo, the Everglades Wonder Gardens, in Bonita Springs. Their relatives were later sold to Savage Kingdom, an Ocala breeding facility, where on Jan. 8, 1991, the twin cougars were born. Watson held them a week later.
Watson, 66, keeps a scrapbook of their first weeks together. In one photo she cradles the tiny cats on both sides of her big smile.
But raising them into adults was not always easy. She drove them in kennels between their care facility and her home in south Tampa every day for seven months, letting them swim in her pool. She had to teach them to not eat her shoes. Stubborn, unruly babies — she learned to out-stubborn them.
"When they were little, they would bite me with those sharp, pointy, needle-like teeth," she said. "I would turn around and bite them just as fast as I could. It wasn't long until I could say, 'I'm gonna bite you,' and they would back off."
The cougars, seventh-generation captives, serve as "ambassadors" in school lessons on the plight of the endangered panther. When in their pen, more than 3,500 square feet of galvanized steel wire curving between the habitat's oaks and pines, they take daily medications for arthritis and kidney failure, mixed into their dinners of raw chicken, steak and beef liver.
They're beginning to show their age. Their paws sometimes quiver inexplicably, and they miss a beat while walking. Little Girl's hazel eyes show the fog of cataracts.
Watson can't say how long the twins will live.
They're due for blood work soon that could show early signs of kidney failure — the leading killer of captive cats. She doesn't want to bring them to the veterinarian.
"It's stupid, I know," she said. "I'm the one faced with the tragedy, at the end."
She didn't want to talk about it as she sat cross-legged in their pen. She cooed to them, watching them, like their mother.
Finally, Little Girl, always so aloof, walked slowly to her side. She nuzzled Watson's face. Watson smiled.
"That's my girl," she said.
Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 869-6244 or [email protected]